Movie Review ~ The Good Dinosaur

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend.

Stars: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffery Wright, Steve Zahn, AJ Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Jack Bright

Director: Peter Sohn

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s usually never a good sign when a release date for a movie is changed once.  It’s an even worse sign when it changes twice.  Then when you hear that nearly all of the cast was replaced, the director removed from the project, and reshoots were required you can rest assured that when (if?) the movie is actually released you’ll have the critical vultures swarming around looking to feast on the carcass of the wounded cinematic animal.

In this case, the movie in question is Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, finally seeing a release date a full two years after its intended November 2013 opening.  Those expecting a misfire from the studio limping into the holiday movie season will be in for a surprise because for the second time in 2015 Disney/Pixar have a hit on their hands.  For all of its fabled troubles on its way to theaters (including replacing the voices of John Lithgow, Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Bill Hader) it’s clear from the final product that whatever tinkering and tailoring was done was necessary and worth the wait.

Featuring what I feel is Pixar’s best animation to date, The Good Dinosaur may lack the overall complex creativity of June’s Inside Out (which ingeniously taught children and adults how to own and celebrate their emotions) but it’s not short on memorable characters and moments.  I went in expecting something along the lines of The Land Before Time but got a lovely family feature that’s generous with humor and heart.

Positing an alternate timeline where the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs missed the planet completely, The Good Dinosaur takes place in the present…albeit in a present where dinosaurs never went extinct and humans never became the dominant species.  This isn’t a dark vision of what might have been but a thoughtful pondering a future were these great beasts continued to thrive for millions of years, living off the rich bounty of a land uncorrupted by progress.

Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) are a brontosaurus couple spending their lives farming and plowing the fields.  Opening with the hatching of their three baby dinos, from their first moments we can see what each of their personalities will be like: Buck is the tough one, Libby is the playful one, and Arlo is…well…he still doesn’t quite know where he fits in.  The runt of the litter (arriving in the biggest egg), he’s a bundle of dino nerves that’s scared of everything from a tiny bug that lands on his nose to the raggedy chickens he’s tasked with feeding.

Borrowing a page from the old-fashioned Disney canon, a tragedy occurs for Arlo followed by a separation from his home that sends him on a journey of discovery to find his way back to his family.  Following the river through the gorgeous untouched landscapes of nature, he’s joined by Spot, a human child that acts like a feral dog that Arlo has a score to settle with.  Eventually the two come to need each other as they face the harsh realities of nature and meet a number of wildlife along the way like a cross-eyed Styracosaurus (hilariously voiced by director Peter Sohn), a pack of threatening Pterodactyls, and a family of cowboy T-Rexes (headed by splendid Sam Elliott, I’ll See You In My Dreams) on a cattle drive.

The material is more adult-oriented than previous Pixar films and I appreciated that the film doesn’t make any excuses for the dramatic (and often scary) turns it takes.  Parents should know that it’s PG for a reason, some kids at my screening had a rough go with the beasts and some of the subject matter.  Arlo is constantly threatened with danger whether it be falling off rocks, plunging into water, or fending off a host of creatures that see him and Spot as their next meal.  The supporting players are perhaps the most bizarre creations from Pixar yet, with the Pterodactyls being most troublesome for this critic thanks to their crazed rants and appetite for food of any kind.

Pixar is no stranger to tapping into emotions and there are several passages of The Good Dinosaur where you may find tears welling up behind your 3D glasses.  While the 3D isn’t revelatory, it goes well with the impressive vistas and animals that pass you by.  Though I tried my hardest to hold it in, I cried a few times over the course of the film thanks to some developments that I could relate to on a personal level.  It won’t give you the Sally Field Ugly Cry Face that Inside Out and Up did, but don’t be surprised if the tears come when you aren’t expecting it.  I also laughed a lot, especially at some unexpected frivolity in the form of a trippy tangent brought on by Arlo and Spot eating spoiled fruit.

The feature goes nicely with Sanjay’s Super Team, the father-son centered short that precedes it and while most will give the Best Pixar of 2015 edge to Inside Out, there’s a case to be made for The Good Dinosaur too.  It’s perhaps less original in conception but in execution it showcases the absolute best animation that Pixar has created so far.

Movie Review ~ Sanjay’s Super Team

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bored with his father’s meditation, a young Indian boy daydreams of Hindu gods as superheroes.

Director: Sanjay Patel

Rated: PG

Running Length: 7 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Each passing Pixar film becomes more and more of an event…and so does the animated short that precedes them.  Already this year we had Lava, screened before Inside Out, that warmed up your tear ducts for the feature film and now we have Sanjay’s Super Team arriving before showings of The Good Dinosaur.  Disney’s first animated short that features a Hindu American lead and inspired by the childhood of its director, Sanjay’s Super Team is a pleasant mixture of Pixar imagination and color.  Still, I found myself not engaging in the story of a boy that falls into a daydream mixing his Hindu culture with his love of American superheroes as much as I was supposed to.  For me, it’s one of the more down the middle shorts but there’s no denying it ends on an emotionally honest note.

Movie Review ~ Victor Frankenstein

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Told from Igor’s perspective, we see the troubled young assistant’s dark origins, his redemptive friendship with the young medical student Viktor Von Frankenstein, and become eyewitnesses to the emergence of how Frankenstein became the man – and the legend – we know today.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox

Director: Paul McGuigan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: If you’re looking for someone to blame for Victor Frankenstein, might I suggest Sherlock Holmes?  A character brought to life so vividly in a series of novels and notable screen adaptations, Holmes has been resurrected to popular effect three times in the last decade.  On the small screen he’s a present-day on the spectrum detective in two television series, one for the BBC (effectively launching Benedict Cumberbatch’s career in the process) and one for CBS  (a more commercial offering, but no less successful) and on the big screen he’s a wise-acre troublemaking sleuth in Guy Ritchie’s two Holmes films.  Possibly trying to exist in the same Victorian England Ritchie world, Victor Frankenstein is a slapdash creation, stitched together with little inspiration or motivation.  It’s a true snoozer…and I know from experience because I fell asleep for part of it.

Opening with the line “You know the story” and then, like all reimaginings must, going on to tell a totally different version of a time-worn tale, at first I was thinking that Victor Frankenstein was on to something.  Told from the perspective of the man who would be Igor (Daniel Radcliffe, What If, The Woman in Black), starting out as a nameless and mistreated hunchback circus clown that studies medicine and dreams of a life with a  pretty trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay, Winter’s Tale), the first, oh, two minutes of the movie are visually impressive and intriguing.  Then our titular character enters (James McAvoy, Trance) and our interest (and the scenery) gets shredded to bits.

Rescuing the deformed man and employing him as his assistant, Frankenstein names him Igor (after his absent flat mate) and attends to his hunchback and crooked stance.  Standing upright with a flat back, clean clothes, and a self-applied haircut delivered by straight razor that suggests a future as a coiffeur, Igor quickly gets up to speed with Frankenstein’s work in bringing the dead back to life.  Originally working on a chimp hybrid that goes ape when roused from an eternal slumber, the two men are soon hired by a wealthy family to create something…bigger.

In between gathering the pieces to assemble the ultimate creation, Igor continues to woo the trapeze artist (now living as a ward to a wealthy businessman) and avoid a fire and brimstone detective (Andrew Scott, Spectre) that believes what Igor and Frankenstein are doing is against God’s will.  There’s the requisite backstory to explain the method behind Frankenstein’s madness and some moral quandaries that are quickly vanquished, it all leads to a rain soaked finale aiming to be electrifying but can’t find a strong current.

As much as Radcliffe tries to distance himself from the boy wizard that made him a household name, I’ve yet to be truly impressed by any of his post-Harry Potter work.   Trapped by an outlandish script by Max Landis (Chronicle) and tonally blunt direction by Paul McGuigan, Radcliffe doesn’t have much to do but peer out from behind his shabby wig, gasp in horror at Frankenstein’s insanity, and make goo-goo eyes at his love.  Brown Findlay has the presence of a rogue dust bunny and Scott simmers with a too-serious biblical rage that leans more toward hysterics than histrionics.

Nothing compares to McAvoy’s unhinged, abysmally over-the-top performance, though, and like it or not you have to give the actor credit for not being afraid to fail.  Possibly recognizing the only way to be memorable in an otherwise dull creature feature is to be more outsized than his muscle bound creation, McAvoy is amped up from frame one and ready to go for the campy gold.  Were the rest of the film less serious in nature, McAvoy’s take might have worked better but here is feels like the actor is out of control.

Technically sound with a good eye for period detail, the money in Victor Frankenstein was clearly spent in the right places like Jany Temime’s (Skyfall) pleasing costumes and Eve Stewart’s (Les Misérables) sumptuous production design. It’s just a shame that all of the funds went to waste in a film with no pulse.